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Venial Worries and More

Dear Christopher,

OK, I am a worrier. I admit it.  Well not all the time do I admit it.  Most times I like to pretend I’m relaxed. But I have the badges: sleepless nights and lots of wrinkles. I am glad kids growing up today have Mark Zmuda, a gay administrator in Seattle, to look up to.  But even in an era of Ellen DeGeneres, Neal Patrick Harris (and his very cute twins) and the out Mayor of Seattle, I do not think the time is over for gay kids and gay adults to feel totally accepted. I worry about the drunken sports fan or even the celebrity or politician who proclaims his intolerance of gay people.  These people often self-righteously couch their beliefs as part of their religion. Scary!! Just look at that oddball from Duck Dynasty, whom I never heard of before the kerfuffle about his anti-gay remarks.  And what about Michael Sam, the football player who came out last week?  Yes he received lots of positive feedback, but also lots of horrible hate speech on social media as well.

While I know you are a confident man I worry about your kids, about your brother Mark’s kids, about your cousin Lillian’s kids.  Those kids love their gay dads and gay uncles. How awful for them to be placed in a position to feel their family disrespected.  And sometimes when you travel out of the safe zone of liberal Seattle I worry about your physical well-being.  I shouldn’t have to worry about that at my age.  I should worry about cancer and heart attacks, about global warming, and the do-nothing Congress but I shouldn’t have to worry about some bigots harming my children and grandchildren. I remember the mother of one of my wonderful African-American high school students said to me years ago, “ I worry about him every time he goes out the door.”  Now I am in her shoes. Your skin color does not call attention but your family does. When you and Patrick go out with your kids you announce who you are.  You are proud of that and so are your family and friends, but what about intolerant others?

When you told me about the firing of the Seattle Catholic school administrator, Mark Zmuda, over his marriage to a man, it touched lots of old wounds.  It plunged me right back to my high school days.  Yet again the Catholic Church is obsessing about sexual behavior just as I experienced it in the past.

As a kid growing up in the 50’s I remember clearly the strict rules taught us girls in my Catholic high school.  Our nun teachers and the priests stressed the grave “sins of the flesh”, just at a time when we were discovering we had flesh!! We agonized over which kind of kissing was venial and which kind was mortal sin.  Sometimes we forgot in the heat of the moment with a boyfriend.  No one I knew would ever consider “going all the way.”   That for sure would get you sent to hell and to the home for unwed mothers.

In reading the New Testament many times I am struck by how little Jesus had to say about sex, but how much he had to say about the “good news” of love and acceptance. In spite of the wrongheaded decision by the board of trustees, that message seems to have connected with the students at Mark Zmuda’s high school. They seem appalled by the firing.  Right from the time when they learned about it, they have held sit-ins and have publicly protested both the school’s action and the archdiocese’s defense of it. I want to believe the message of Jesus got through, despite the damaging messengers. The students seem to know what’s right. Too bad the administration doesn’t.

So there is some hope for my worrying.  Even the President and the First Lady supported Michael Sam.  In addition, there are many out gay celebrities.  Ellen DeGeneres’s popularity seems undimmed. Neil Patrick Harris and his husband very publicly post photos of their twins.  The Mayor of Seattle and his husband led the march for the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl parade. Yes, encouraging to say the least.  But, still, can you blame a mother for worrying?

Love, Mom

Mark Zmuda, 1983, and Me

Dear Mom,

I’m going to take you for a little walk down memory lane back to the year 1983. Ronald Reagan was president (I know…deep breath), in September I started my sophomore year at St. Joe’s, and you were teaching high school English.  That fall I was cast in Annie, my first play at Mt. St. Mary’s, and with my new friends Sue and Denise and Jim and Anthony, I started attending the all-ages Sunday night disco dances at that nightclub near the University of Buffalo.  In my preppy button down shirts and corduroy pants, I danced to “Lucky Star,”  “Come On Eileen” and “Karma Chameleon” and I thought to myself that I might be gay.  I was terrified.

It was during those early and mid-80s that you proudly told me that you were watching MTV to “keep up on the videos.”  Did I laugh out loud? You, an old geezer in my eyes at 40, what could you possibly know about Madonna, Dexy’s Midnight Runners or Culture Club?  Now, some thirty years later, I am teaching high school English and getting ready to parent two teens of my own.  Driving to and from work, I tune in to top 40 radio stations, and listen with interest when Isabella tells me about new singers and groups she likes.  I get it now. An old geezer myself, I spend the day working with teens and nights with a tween, and in an effort to seem not so much like a dinosaur, I too am trying to keep up.

In the fall of 2008 my students first told me about a local rapper named Macklemore.  This was years before he burst onto the national scene, and although I took note of the name, I didn’t bother to track down any of his music.  It was October of that year that you and dad came to Seattle to stay with the kids while Patrick and I got legally married in California.  Of course it was also the year that, just weeks after signing our papers, voters in California passed Proposition 8 reversing the law that allowed us to get married.  That same night, Obama was elected president.

When I was at St. Joe’s, I did not know, or know of, one openly gay or lesbian adult.  There were no politicians, Hollywood stars, or sports figures, no teachers, doctors or lawyers who confidently and unequivocally came out publically and said “I am gay.”  The good Christian Brothers at Joes taught us that homosexuality was a sin, an abomination. Looking around, I was convinced that if I wanted to fall in love, get married, and have kids, I best not be gay.  And so I prayed, and tried, and hoped for it not to be true about me, because boy, did I want the spouse and the family of my own.

Today, there are some lucky young teens who attend Eastside Catholic High School, just outside of Seattle. They have a wonderful role model in Mark Zmuda. News reports have detailed his popularity as both an educator and coach; his sexual orientation seemed to have been, in the best possible way, an afterthought.  Having found the love of his life, he took advantage of Washington’s marriage equality law and tied the knot this past summer.  I cannot imagine what that must have been like for a pimply young sophomore boy or girl to find out. “It’s possible,” she must have thought.  “Love can happen for me,” he probably said to himself, “regardless of which sex I fall in love with.”

The world has changed so much for LGBT and questioning youth since 1983, and thank God for that.   It has even changed since 2008.  Prior to his re-election in 2012, Obama stunned the country by proclaiming his support for marriage equality, after saying during the 2008 campaign that, due to his religious beliefs, he could not.  Macklemore and Ryan Lewis rose to national and international fame, and their song “Same Love” became the anthem for the marriage equality movement across the nation. On the night of Obama’s re-election, you and I chatted on the phone (me shaking and near tears), incredulous about the impending victory for marriage equality in Washington, Maryland, and Maine and the defeat of the same-sex marriage ban in Minnesota.  Then came another elated call this last summer when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and denied standing to the proponents of Prop 8, effectively overturning the law.

The gains are tremendous and stunning, and more and more young people will wake up day after day believing that a future of love happiness and (possibly) kids is in their future.  They will be spared some of the turmoil and indecision and pain I faced. Maybe I should reconsider my disbelief of miracles.

Zmuda spoke to the media about feeling overwhelmed by the support he received from the Eastside community, and in particular the vocal and persistent support he received from students.  After the 2012 election, more than a few of my students congratulated me on the victory, and several pressed me repeatedly for details on Patrick and my plans to get married.  I shared, tentatively at first, as I knew that a number of these students (all girls, truth be told) were a part of a Christian youth group.  As a recovering Catholic and a skeptic of organized religious organizations (particularly those, like the one my students belong to, that appear to be conservative and evangelical), I had a preconceived idea of what these young women believed, and was taken aback by their interest and support. When I finally had the courage to thank them and ask how their religious views impacted their enthusiasm for same-sex marriage, they boldly dismissed me with “Oh, we don’t care about that.”

My students, not unlike Zmuda’s at Eastside Catholic, give me hope for a better, more accepting future for those who identify as LGBT or those who are questioning.  I can’t help thinking that these students, Zmuda’s and mine, are carrying out the true message of the Bible.  This is, at least to some extent, what society and religion in 2014 looks like. It’s a far cry from 1983. Thank God.

Love Christopher

How to Live with Extended Family for a Week

Dear Christopher,

For the first time in years you guys were here for the holidays.  A whole week together with you both and with the children.  I was very excited to celebrate Christmas on our home turf.  All the years we were with you in Seattle were great.  I love your Seattle family.  Doug and Paul always make us feel welcome.  The Christmas Eve celebration with the twelve fish dishes is nothing short of outstanding.  But Christmas at home is very special to me.  Aunt Judy and I often talk about the days when you and your brother were young and those big Christmas celebrations with the grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Your cousin Lillian says she misses it terribly.  Yes, I know, I know.  Back then Aunt Judy and I did our share of complaining about all the work we had to do.  But truth be told, we miss those times now.

When your grandmother was alive I always felt bad leaving her on the holiday.  Yet I wanted very much to spend time with you and Patrick.  I wanted so much to be part of your children’s memories of Christmas.  What a treat it was to watch them run down the stairs on Christmas morning to open their presents.  Then we adults could laze about over coffee and pancakes and chat and eat cookies. But having the holiday in our home really was a thrill. I was so excited about that.  Kept telling my friends that the kids were coming here for the first time in years. (Yes, you are still my kid). I even got a real tree.  Bought lights and decorations because I had jettisoned the old ones after so many years away. Like celebrations of old Aunt Judy baked what seemed like endless cookies.  I planned a couple of big gatherings at our home.  We had some celebratory cocktails together, just the four of us, after the kids went to bed.  It was a great holiday from my perspective, despite frigid weather and a cancelled return flight to Seattle.  I was worried that staying an extra day and scrambling to find another flight back home would put you all off Christmas back east.  But it was fun to have an extra day together.  Those crazy, complicated holiday celebrations of old have a new spin, but thankfully you all got back in time for school and work. I am hoping and planning for next year already.

This time when Aunt Judy and I reminisce about holidays we did not rehash old complaints about the cooking and cleaning to prepare.  We did not talk about how now our family is so small and our celebrations so few. This time we genuinely rejoiced as we realized the joy in approximating those grand old holiday traditions once again.

Love MOM